Strategy Share: Exploring Climate Change with Google Earth

The following post was written by 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Kyle Tredinnick, a high school social studies teacher, after his expedition to Iceland. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program is a professional development opportunity for pre-K–12 educators made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.

Kyle Tredinnick is a social studies teacher at Omaha Public Schools’ Zoo Academy. Photo courtesy Kyle Tredinnick

I circumnavigated Iceland on expedition as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow in July 2017, not long after the announcement that the United States planned to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation. Back home in the U.S., there was a lot of political debate about involvement in the agreement and the value of combating global warming at home. In Iceland, I came face-to-face with the effects as we visited spectacular landscapes threatened by the warming climate.

I knew I needed to share what I saw with my students. Since they could not travel to Iceland themselves, I looked for a tool that would bring the changing glaciers to them. Timelapse, a program developed using the Google Earth Engine, makes it possible to watch how glaciers have changed since 1984. In this program, you can scroll to just about any glacier or ice cap in the Northern Hemisphere, and you will notice a significant decline.

While viewing Iceland’s Vatnajökull in Timelapse, you can see the glacier shrinking on all sides and receding rapidly near the Breiðamerkurjökull arm. (Jökull means “glacier” in Icelandic.) Other northern glaciers, the such as Columbia Glacier in southern Alaska and the Helheim Glacier in eastern Greenland, offer interesting views of the shifts that glaciers are undergoing. A different trend is apparent in Antarctica: some glaciers there are actually growing. This article by Inside Climate News explains why Antarctic regions are less significantly impacted by global warming than Arctic regions.

Kyle visited Iceland’s Vatnajökull on his expedition. Timelapse views reveal significant changes in the glacier’s size over time. Photo by Kyle Tredinnick

The Timelapse imagery works well for giving students a broad overview of glacial change. To highlight specific glaciers for my students, I put together a gallery of changing glaciers using Carnegie Mellon University’s GigaPan Time Machine technology. The Time Machine tutorial does a great job of explaining how to put together your own gallery.

After students explored this gallery, I had them examine a glacier more closely to collect data on just how much the glaciers are retreating. Google Earth Pro’s historical imagery offers an interactive way to see change over time, so it is a perfect way to show the real effect that climate change is having on the glaciers of Iceland. The activity I created looks specifically at imagery of Breiðamerkurjökull, an outlet of Vatnajökull in southeast Iceland. You can view the lesson plan here.

In this activity, students investigate Breiðamerkurjökull’s history by viewing imagery from 1984 and using the path tool to draw a path along the face of the glacier, marking its location. Then, they examine the glacier’s most recent position, again using the path tool to mark the face. They measure the distance between the two lines at 10 different observation points and use those measurements to calculate the mean distance of retreat.

Students use historical imagery from Google Earth to calculate the melting of Breiðamerkurjökull. Photo by Kyle Tredinnick

Students’ comments after completing the activity showed their shock at how much the glaciers are receding. Using remote sensing in this way is straightforward for the students to grasp. It provides a tool for the students to really be able to explore the effects of climate change, not just be told about them.

The activity also gave us the unexpected opportunity to perform a bit of statistical analysis that reached across my different classes. Based on each student’s calculated mean, we were able to calculate a class average. From there, we compared the averages to other classes and determine outliers. Collecting more than 200 measurements gave us an even clearer idea of how much climate change is impacting this glacier.

The activity inspired at least some of my students to recognize the need to act. That led to discussions on what ordinary citizens can do to address global issues like climate change. Although my students could not travel with me to Iceland, these visual tools allowed them to observe the real effects global warming is having on the planet.

Kyle Tredinnick explores Vatnajökull. Photo by Mircea Arsenie
Lindblad and NGS

The Strategy Share series features innovative teaching ideas developed by Grosvenor Teacher Fellows following their field-based experiences on voyages with Lindblad Expeditions.

2 thoughts on “Strategy Share: Exploring Climate Change with Google Earth

  1. Hi Kyle, Thank you so much for sharing this incredible use of technology in creating a lesson on climate change! Sounds like you had an amazing travel opportunity to visit Iceland and see some glaciers in person. I think sharing personal experiences and photos is a great way to engage students in new material. I really like the idea of examining evidence of glaciers receding. Have you come up with any other areas to use Time Machine to help your students observe how climate change has changed the surface of the Earth? Perhaps coastlines that are changing with rising sea levels? Thanks for sharing. Best, Sarah

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